Who was R.B.?

The initials R.B. (or sometimes B.R.) were a presence in the early years of commercial publishing.  They pop up in all sorts of documents.  It’s not even certain that they represent a single individual, but were, perhaps at one time or another, simply a mask that could represent almost anyone.  Whoever he/they were, he was more often a publisher than a writer, as he “commended to the press” several works, among them Pettie’s Petite Pallace (1576) and Greene, His Funeral (1594).  Where he wrote introductory letters his style was identical to that of Pettie/Lyly/Greene etc. , which isn’t to say that he wasn’t simply someone who wrote in the style that all these folks were using to communicate with each other, though of course it may have been another case of the real author using his name, or rather, his initials.

The initials appear on title pages only once as author, in the very early play, Appius and Virginia, printed in 1575 but first registered with the Stationers in 1567-68, and, according to Reed et al, probably first performed around 1563 (8.339), a date perhaps suggested by its very early rhyming doggerel style. This early appearance of the initials have suggested to some Richard Bower, Master of the Children of the Chapell, under Edward VI, Mary and the early years of Elizabeth, but this is unlikely since Bower died in 1561, a year before the beginning of the publishing activity that launched the English Literary Renaissance.  The STC lists eight other works by unspecified R.Bs between 1570 and 1595.

Barnabe Riche

Riche’s first book Alarm to England was published in 1578, not long after Pettie’s Pallace; his most famous, Farewell to the Militarie, in 1581.  For Riche to be R.B. requires that his initials be reversed, but that was a standard ploy at this time of identifying through subtle means.  Along those lines, we find both R.B. and B.R. appearing in various roles in the flurry of posthumous Greene pamphlets, first in Greene’s News Both from Heaven and Hell, published in 1593, in place of an author’s name on the title-page there is the statement that the book was “Commended to the press by B.R.” while the dedicatory epistle, also by “B.R.,” claims that the manuscript was put into his hands by none other than the ghost of Robert Greene.  The following year, Greene’s Funerals (the only one of the posthumous pamphlets that praises Greene) was printed in the following year with “R.B., gentleman” on the title-page, lends authority to the idea that the initials R.B. and B.R. might represent the same person.  Riche is connected to Shakespeare through his use of one of the tales in Militarie Profession for the plot of Twelfth Night.  There is no known connection to Oxford (that is, other than the fact that the writing community was too small for any one member not to know every other member).

Sir Thomas Sackville, Ld Buckhurst

Although this gifted poet officially retired from the writing community in 1566, he remained very much a part of the Court community, acquiring one position after another until he was named Lord Treasurer following Burghley’s death in 1598.  Although Buckhurst begins with a B, obviously Thomas does not begin with an R.  However, in the name game that these writers were playing, its possible that he could have used his father’s name, Richard Buckhurst, from whom he inherited his title and the name Buckhurst, and who was named by Roger Ascham as the primary instigator of his 1563 book, The Scholemaster, a leading conservative voice against the new literature that Painter introduced (and to which Lyly’s Euphues, The Anatomy of Wit appears to have been a response).

What Buckhurst’s relationship with Oxford might have been later on it’s hard to tell, but they would certainly have known each other well  enough from Cecil House days to work together in 1573 to publish Bartholomew Clerk’s Latin translation of Castiglione’s Courtier.  All of this, of course, is nothing but supposition, our only support that the number of players in this game was so small, it seems unlikely that such a gifted poet would remain completely apart from the thrilling literary developments occuring throughout his long life at the center of Court activities.  What did Sackville write in later years that’s hidden behind initials or pseudonyms?  A worthy endeavor for some future literary anthropologist.

Richard Barnfield

Although Barnfield was obvious a player in this literary drama, and certainly has the right initials, it seems unlikely that he was in any position to act as a publisher of other men’s work.  Born in 1574, he was much too young to be the author of, or front for, Appius and Virginia (c.1563, 1567-8).  The works for which he is known are all poems, many of them homoerotic and therefore scandalous, although some are truly lovely. “The Encomion of Lady Pecunia, or, The Praise of Money,” a tongue-in-cheek disquisition on wealth and the dangers of forgery. “The Complaint of Poetry, for the Death of Liberality,” published in 1598, which bewails the poverty of poets and the lack of generous patrons, seems unlikely if coming from a publisher wealthy enough to publish the works of other men.  Although he lived into the second decade of the 17th century, nothing original by him was published after 1605.  It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that he was a stand-in for someone else, John Donne perhaps.

Robert Beale (1541-1601)

Beale would be my candidate.  As Clerk of the Privy Council from the early 1570s until his death in 1601, he was privy to just about everything that went on during Elizabeth’s reign.  For another, he seems always to have been on the right side of every question in which he was involved, that is, the side that our poets would have favored.  Although a solid Reformation Protestant, he was even-handed with Catholics and worked to see them protected from imprisonment and torture.  Over the years he authored a number of important treatises and position papers of the sort that Sir Thomas Smith had written a generation earlier.  There’s no doubt that he was acquainted with Smith; he mentions him, and both worked in the same arena for many years.  Like Smith, he was scholarly in his tastes, was a member of the Society of Antiquarians, and owned a large book collection. The appearances of the R.B. initials that began with the publication of Appius and Virginia in 1567-68 and ended with Orpheus His Journey to Hell (published as by “R.B. Gent.”) in 1595 (though by its style, written much earlier), fit well with Beale’s years (1541-1601).  He also refers to himself as “R.B.” in 1592 in his “Instructions for a Principal Secretary observed by R.B. for Sir Edward Wotton” (Dewar 112).

What recommends him most is his relationship with his brother-in-law, Sir Francis Walsingham, who I believe was the dominant Court patron of the Stage and Press during the 1580s when they were becoming established as the English fourth estate.  Beale was not only Clerk of the Council at the time, he was Walsingham’s personal secretary, working closely with the Secretary throughout the ’70s and ’80s until his death in 1590.  That anything Beale may have done in connection with the stage or press, remains outside the reach of any record conforms to the same degree of secrecy with which Walsingham managed all his affairs.

The only contact with Oxford that rises to the level of public record is his effort in 1575 to retrieve property stolen from the Earl during his European expedition.  If Beale was the R.B. who acted as publisher of Pettie’s Pallace in 1575, the introductory letter from Pettie in which he invites R.B. to accompany him on an upcoming voyage fits well with Oxford’s preparations in 1574 and early ’75 for his trip to Italy, though there’s no record that he went.  Beale was then 33.

Finally, that the Earl of Essex knew, or believed, that R.B. was Robert Beale seems clear from a paragraph in P.J. Hammer’s 1999 biography of the Earl.  In 1597, when writing to a colleague about his plan to publish his own version of the attack on Cadiz, because the Queen had forbidden him to publish it, Essex explained how he was seeking a way to get it into print without seeming to have written it himself.  He explained how he had asked Fulke Greville if Greville would allow him to use

the two first letters of his name . . . in the inscription, which if he grant, he must be entreated not to take notice of the author but to give out that indeed he received it amongst other papers . . . but by the subscription (which may be D.T., or . . .  if he be unwilling you may put R.B. which some no doubt will interpret to be Mr. Beale . . . . (252)

Hammer notes that Essex was not on good terms with Beale at that time, having failed in 1595 to unseat him from his position as Clerk of the Council in favor of one of his own supporters, so if not a malicious willingness to blow his cover, at the least the Earl is showing a cavalier lack of concern for Beale’s reputation, an example of the kind of thoughtless behavior that led to his disastrous loss of support at Court.

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